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Living with Elephants

"Elephants smell of..."

"Warmth, friendliness and comfort," Doug interrupted me. I looked up at him. He was smiling wryly. He knew that wasn't what I was asking. But I accepted his answer. What other choice did I have? For it was true: for Doug that is what elephants smell of. His elephants are not a hobby, not part of a job, rather part of his family.

I had been brought up in Africa in the belief that African elephants could not be 'trained' to the same extent that Asian elephants are used as working beasts under the tutelage of their mahouts. But then, later in life, I had learned of Hannibal and his exploits in subjugating Rome. Were these African or Asian elephants? In spite of this I was cynical. I could not believe that the majestic beast of my youth - the African elephant - could be tamed. Yet my experience with Abercrombie & Kent and in particular Doug Groves persuaded me otherwise.

I jumped out of our 4x4 eager to get closer to the elephants; a childlike curiosity and awe of these powerful pachyderms initiated camera reflex. I just couldn't believe that I was only yards from them and started snapping away.

Doug started speaking. I put my camera down, quickly enraptured by his measured and erudite words of wisdom. "The word elephant is derived from the Greek word 'elephas' meaning ivory. Elephants are colloquially called pachyderms (from their original scientific classification), which means thick-skinned animals. The order under which they are now classified is Proboscidea, derived from the Latin word proboscis meaning trunk. "  This was no circus act. Doug was no ringmaster. He clearly knew what he was talking about.

"Jabu," he beckoned quietly. "Jabu. Good boy."

Amazingly, Jabu (short for Jabulani, a common Zulu name, meaning Happiness) relinquished the thorny mopane bush he was focused upon and strode quietly forward to take his position centre stage.

"Jabu say hello to our new friends." Jabu raised his trunk in greeting. Shortly after, he lowered his head as a mark of respect.

"Jabu is a proud and handsome bull who enjoys his role as alpha elephant of the small herd. He is kind, playful, generous, big-hearted and dependable. Of the three elephants he is the most independent and confident. He provides the girls with a steady anchor during times of concern."

Introduction over, Doug became more personal. "Jabu, ears," he says in conversational tones. A gasp from me and the assembled as Jabu complies with the request and fans out his ears.

"His ears are large. They are important for temperature regulation. Elephant ears are made of a very thin layer of skin stretched over cartilage and a rich network of blood vessels. On hot days, elephants will flap their ears constantly, creating a slight breeze. This breeze cools the surface blood vessels, and then the cooler blood gets circulated to the rest of the animal's body."

"Here, feel the outside of Jabu's ear. Now feel the inside. Feel how different it is. Velvet smooth on the inside?"

A change of cast as under Doug's quiet narration, Jabu returns to his feeding and Morula steps forward in his stead. Orphaned in a Zimbabwean culling programme, Morula came to Doug in mid-December 1994 as a socially maladjusted and lonely 17 year-old. She lacked confidence and carried with her a lot of old baggage, which manifested itself in a variety of aberrant behaviour. Under Doug's diligent care Morula has rediscovered her self-respect and a strong sense of belonging.

Doug invites us to feel the hard smoothness of her ivories. "The tusks of an elephant are its second upper incisors. Tusks grow continuously; an adult male's tusks grow about seven inches a year. Tusks are used to dig for water, salt, and roots; to debark trees to eat the bark; to dig into baobab trees to get at the pulp inside; and to move trees and branches when clearing a path."

"Like humans, who are typically right or left handed, elephants are usually right or left tusked."

Our disbelief at this latest insight into elephants was quickly laid to rest with a simple demonstration. Doug explained that elephants will prefer using one side of their trunk for pulling grass. He showed us the stains and wear and tear on the left hand side of Morula's trunk and then called forward Thembi and showed the same stain and marks on the right hand side of her trunk.

Thembi, short for Thembigela a common Zulu name meaning trust, is the sweetheart of the herd and the smallest in stature. Perfectly formed, pretty and dainty, Thembi knows a few tricks for getting her way. Smart and very social, she loves to be the centre of attention.

"Thembi, lift," requests Doug. Thembi raises her trunk.

"The proboscis, or trunk, is a fusion of the nose and upper lip, elongated and specialised to become the elephant's most important and versatile appendage. African elephants are equipped with two fingerlike projections at the tip of their trunk, while Asians have only one. The elephant's trunk is sensitive enough to pick up a single blade of grass, yet strong enough to rip the branches off a tree."

Doug asks Thembi to demonstrate her trunk's dexterity by removing a hat from the head of one of the group. To much laughter and delight, Thembi does so with ease. She is then asked to put it back. She dutifully obliges and in doing so shows her real intelligence and talent for pleasing crowds: unhappy that the hat is not on straight she uses her initiative and carefully picks it up and places with the utmost care back on the client's head ensuring that it is just right. The applause is spontaneous and unconditional. It is dangerous to anthropomorphise these intelligent animals but Thembi was beaming with pride and behind her thick curly eyelashes her eyes were smiling with real pleasure at being so appreciated.

We head off for a walk with the herd. En route we are shown and given further nuggets of information, not least that the gnarly soles of an elephant's feet are designed for grip and to mould themselves over any roughness in the terrain so that they can walk with near silent steps. I am totally engrossed. The elephant is such a familiar animal yet I realise how little I know about it, how much I have taken for granted whether it be the improbably heavy tube of spiralling muscle that is the trunk or the thickness of its hair.

The grand finale was at the end of lunch. Doug began explaining, "Elephants make a number of sounds when communicating. Elephant are famous for their trumpet calls which are made when the animal blows though its nostrils. Trumpeting is usually made during excitement. Elephants also make rumbling growls when greeting each other. The growl becomes a bellow when the mouth is open and a bellow becomes a moan when prolonged. This can escalate with a roar when threatening another elephant or another animal."

We were then treated to the full vocal range of Jabu and Thembi. I am not sure if 'vocal range' is appropriate for an elephant but for me it is the only way to full describe the astonishing range of sounds the two produced.

The morning was a wonderfully enlightening and enriching experience. In the short passage of a Double Biology lesson I learned far more about anatomy, and in particular that of the elephant, than I had done in years of classroom and university studies.

But this had been better than any lesson at school. And that was not just because of the setting and the subjects but because of our teacher, Doug. He has been working with and studying elephants since 1972 and his commitment to them their needs and to teaching others about them is unquestionable. So to his love for Jabu, Morula and Thembi and perhaps you now you can understand why I so readily accepted his answer of what elephants smell of..














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